Contributed by Sarah McDonald, a Red Cross volunteer in San Francisco
The destruction brought by Superstorm Sandy inspired many people to donate their time, skills, and money. The American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter deployed 97 volunteers, who dropped everything to travel across the country to help. One Bay Area volunteer, Pat Morales, 66, has made the trip not once, but four times, spending several weeks at a time in New York helping those affected rebuild their lives.
The Vallejo resident believes the Red Cross plays a vital role in helping people recover from a disaster. Volunteers offer practical help, from ensuring people have something to eat to partnering with other agencies to make their property liveable again.
"If you lost everything and had to move into a new place and the landlord wants the first and last month's security deposit, many people don’t have that,” Pat said. “We were working in conjunction with the Salvation Army, Catholic charities, and FEMA to get people monetary funds. We were trying to expedite things to help [those who lost everything]."
As a caseworker, Pat said his primary focus as a lead supervisor was to meet with as many people as he could each day. Each case had its own set of unique problems and it was important to compile all the proper documentation and provide all the vital information quickly, so those affected could start their recovery process.
While people affected by a disaster desperately need practical help to guide them through the bureaucratic process of rebuilding their property or finding a new place to live, there are other, equally important ways where Red Cross volunteers can make a difference.
"We were serving food out of the ERV [Emergency Response Vehicle] and it was about 5:30 p.m.,” Pat said.”We were driving through a neighborhood and we asked if anyone wanted hot food. These kids were sitting on a stoop, and we asked if their parents were there. The parents came out and said, ‘yeah they could use some food, we’re still out of power.’
"These kids came up and we gave them little bags with things like potato chips and cookies. The kids said they wanted to have a party because they hadn’t had cookies or potato chips in three weeks. They were so happy and thankful to us and that put a smile on my face."
These simple acts of kindness help bring back some sense of normalcy to communities traumatized by disasters.
"We would try to go back to areas at a certain time each day and [people] looked foward to seeing us and saying ‘hi’,” Pat said. “[It meant so much] to them to just have someone to talk to and have a hug, or ask ‘how you doing?’ Letting people know we care - that is the main thing.”
Superstorm Sandy is the biggest U.S. disaster the American Red Cross has responded to in the past five years. During Pat's most recent deployment, on February 8, Nemo, a fierce blizzard, hit New York. More than two feet of snow fell in some areas and a state of emergency was declared in New York City, Long Island, and the northern suburbs.
"Everybody got snowed in, once that snow came in we were on the back burner," Pat said.
Volunteers were forced to stay put for a while but it did not stop them from doing their job. Drivers took extra care in driving in the winter weather and continued to distribute assistance, food, and supplies.
Pat says he feels "an overwhelming sense of pride" working for the Red Cross. Despite the long days and weeks spent sleeping in a college gymnasium on temporary cots, Pat says volunteers would often work late into the evening to get the job done, without complaint.
After spending just three and a half weeks out of the last four months at home, Pat plans to spend some time with his significant other, Dorothy. Although there is still more to do for those affected by Sandy, Pat says, "this time I felt like I did all I can."
But, the next time disaster strikes, Pat says he'll be ready to jump back in the ERV or catch a red eye to wherever volunteers are needed.